COLUMBIA — Victor Hampton turned 21 last Tuesday, and then spent a few days of his spring break hanging out with teammates in Myrtle Beach. Those two moments might have once spelled trouble for Hampton. But there he was after Tuesday’s South Carolina spring football practice, present and accounted for, proudly discussing his uneventful time off.
“Nothing bad happened,” he said with a wide smile.
He said he celebrated his 21st with his mother, sister and niece at a restaurant in Columbia, which was quiet during the break.
“I didn’t go out to a strip club or nothing like that,” he said. “No bar or nothing.”
Nobody would begrudge Hampton his right to enjoy a beer or two, but his tame birthday underscores his mission this year of proving — to his coaches, NFL teams and himself — that he can be a reliable adult, as well as a talented cornerback.
Hampton, a fourth-year junior, is one of USC’s most intriguing players. Everybody knows defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is likely headed for No. 1 in next year’s NFL draft. No one can say for sure where Hampton will end up. So this season, his second as the starting boundary corner, is critical for him.
The previous starter at his position, which requires more one-on-one coverage and physicality than field corner, was Stephon Gilmore, the 10th pick in 2012. That fact is not lost on Hampton.
“It definitely sparks me, man,” Hampton said. “You definitely can be a great player, but if you’re a bad person off the field, you won’t get far. I feel like I’ve never been a bad person. I just feel like I’ve made some small bad decisions and it just followed me. I’m just trying to get the bad stuff from behind my name.”
Hampton attended four high schools in four years. He was kicked off the team at Independence in Charlotte before his senior season, 2009. He was committed to Florida at the time, but the Gators backed off, and Hampton had to reopen his recruitment. In February 2010, two days after he signed with USC, he was arrested for drinking alcohol at Darlington High.
He redshirted in 2010 at USC. The following June, he was kicked off the team for breaking unspecified team rules and then reinstated the next week for what seemed to be his final chance. He served a three-game suspension to start the 2011 season. He hasn’t been suspended since.
If he could go back and talk to himself as a high school junior, his message would be simple: “Bite your tongue.”
“I was one of those guys, when I saw something and I felt it was wrong, I would get it off my chest,” he said. “I would say things that other people wanted to say, so I just had to learn how to keep everything in here and bite my tongue.”
Now, Hampton talks often about “unfinished business.” It’s why he returned to school after being projected as a third-round pick this year by the NFL’s advisory committee. To Hampton, unaccomplished goals mean more than just exceeding last year’s one interception.
“I would get to a point where I would feel good (about off-field behavior), and then I might make that mistake again,” he said. “Right now, I’m just trying to tell myself, ‘Take it day by day. Don’t get too happy with what’s going on and how good I’m doing right now.’ ”
There have never been questions about his football skills. He was rated the No. 6 corner in his recruiting class by Rivals and as the No. 60 overall recruit. Sprinter’s speed is just one reason why he excels in coverage as a 5-10, 197-pound player who is two inches shorter than Gilmore.
“He plays with a low center of gravity, so he can get in and out of cuts,” said defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.
Said defensive backs coach Grady Brown: “If Vic was a sports car … he’d go from zero to 60 faster than any other sports car out there. He gets to his top speed fast.
“I think Vic wants to prove some things to himself (this season). There were some plays that he had the opportunity to make last year that he didn’t make. When he watches film, he realizes he left some plays out there. If he reaches his maximum potential, he can be a special player.”
Hampton recently watched practice film from his freshman season. He marveled at how unsure he looked, trying to atone for technique shortcomings with natural ability. Now that he grasps the roles of all defensive backs, not just his, he can better recognize offensive formations and help align his teammates before the snap. Now, he believes, he can peak as a player and a man.
“Now I can be the Bandit out there,” he said, referring to his nickname from high school. “I’m definitely ready to make the jump to be a great player and be a leader out here on the field.”